Monday, December 12, 2011

A weekend of birding in the Drake Passage!

Friday morning began early as we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia adding roughly 1,000 miles to our southward progress. From the air, Tierra Del Fuego looks rugged and untamed with snow-capped mountains and a remarkable view of South America tapering to a point.
We were given a tour of Ushuaia and the southernmost end of Patagonia. On one side of the Beagle Channel you have views of jagged Argentine mountains and the city. The equally impressive mountains of Chile are directly opposite.

One of the highlights of the day was touring the Ushuaia Jail and Military Prison. Think of a cross between “Papillion” and “Alcatraz” and you get the picture. This prison was built by the prisoners who were brought to Ushuaia as “colonists.” There were also wings dedicated to Antarctic Exploration, Tierra Del Fuego’s maritime history and some exhibits related to penguins and other Antarctic critters.
I should mention that the weather was unreal for Ushuaia. Our naturalist said that temperatures near 70 with almost a full day of sun are very rare. We enjoyed these conditions along with the residents who were preparing to spend their holiday weekend outdoors with family hiking, fishing and camping. Our naturalist added, “They will also be participating in the national sport of bar-b-que.”
After boarding our ship, Le Boreal, the cruise got underway by late afternoon. The Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) introduced themselves at a special presentation in the ship’s theater. We are in great hands with a staff that collectively has more than 180 years of Antarctic experience. These experts, from fields ranging from ornithology to geology, will make sure we get the most out of our visit. Our first good tip was to watch for Megellanic penguins on a couple of islands in the Beagle Channel. These birds were spotted from a distance, standing on shore with one or two gentoos.
The boat became quiet rather quickly after watching the full moon rising over the Channel. Almost everyone was pretty exhausted after the first few lengthy, but fun days.
This morning there’s no land in sight and so far the famous Drake Passage is treating us well. We’re heading southeast at 14 knots in light seas. The sky is mostly cloudy and it’s now down to 45 degrees with a 10 mph wind. The t-shirts will be covered with several layers as we continue cruising toward Antarctica.
Saturday, December 10th - Everyone has said that the sea conditions in the Drake Passage are either tranquil or a tempest with no middle ground. When it’s calm, sailors call the Passage “Drake Lake.”
The day began with some early morning bird watching on the stern of Le Boreal. Numerous pelagic birds could be seen soaring above the Le Boreal’s wake. I have been captivated by the amazing life cycle of the wandering albatross ever since reading Carl Safina’s book, “Eye of the Albatross.”


Wandering Albatross
A&K staff member Dr. Patricia Silva gave a fascinating presentation on the birds we are seeing, many that have the largest wingspans of any bird on earth. These pictures don’t do the albatross and petrel justice. Dr. Silva said radio telemetry devices have shown that these birds can travel more than 10,000 miles in a single outing that may last months or years. They are perfectly suited for maximizing the low level air currents above cresting waves. Albatrosses are simply stunning birds that are being threatened today by plastics in the ocean and longline fishing.
Another animal that scientists are learning about through the use of satellite tracking tags are orcas. Shortly before lunch the captain announced a pod of orcas was spotted behind the boat. He was giving everyone a chance to grab photo equipment while he brought the vessel back around for a closer look. Charley Wheatley, the on-board marine mammal expert, gave everyone an impromptu orca lesson while at least ten “killer whales” went about their business. This was said to be a very unusual sighting. Normally orcas are not seen this far north or this early in the season. Perhaps they were returning from a spa treatment.
According to a recent press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, some Antarctic orcas have been tracked with satellite tags making rapid migrations to tropical waters. It’s believed this helps regenerate skin tissue. According to NOAA, one tagged orca took a vacation to southern Brazil, more than 5,000 miles away only to return directly to Antarctic waters a short time later. You can read more here:
It’s now about 12:41 am and time for bed. Twilight outside the cabins of Le Boreal with a current reading of 38 degrees. Position: 60 degrees 15.93’ S, 61 degrees 23.83 W. By morning we’ll be seeing ice in the water. Bigger icebergs and islands later in the morning.

1 comment:

Paul Barys said...

FYI, The Bears lost in the last two minutes to Tebow, ugggh!